As Secretary of Administration, Mike Huebsch is the man in charge

2011-04-25T09:15:00Z 2011-04-25T09:25:06Z As Secretary of Administration, Mike Huebsch is the man in chargeBy CHRIS HARDIE | La Crosse Tribune

Mike Huebsch was angry. The target of his wrath was 14 Democratic state senators who a day earlier had not only left the Capitol but fled Wisconsin to prevent a vote on a controversial budget adjustment bill that would have removed most of public employees' collective bargaining rights.

Some applauded the tactic, since it stopped a vote by the Republican majority and gave the Democrats a potential bargaining chip in what was turning into a high stakes political drama. Others called it an act of cowardice and accused the senators of walking away from the job.

Department of Administration Secretary Huebsch did not mince words when reached on his cell phone Feb. 18 while walking from his Madison office to the Capitol for a meeting with Gov. Scott Walker.

"We're not going to negotiate."

Later Huebsch conceded that the governor wanted to immediately open up talks with the AWOL senators. Huebsch advised against it. "It's impossible to negotiate when you've left the state," he said.

The senators did not return for nearly a month, after Senate Republicans used a legislative maneuver to approve the bill without them. The bill remains in legal limbo today.

It's been less than four months since Huebsch resigned his 94th District Assembly seat and joined Walker's cabinet to accept what is widely regarded as the most powerful political seat in Wisconsin after the governor.

As the man in charge of the state budget and the chief author of the budget adjustment proposal that touched off the firestorm, Huebsch has been the target of Capitol protests and legal challenges.

The adjustment proposal, introduced Feb. 11, terminated state employee contracts and called for substantial concessions from public employees in their health insurance and pension contributions.

Huebsch, like Walker, maintains that the changes were overdue and necessary in light of the state's estimated $3.6 billion budget hole for the next biennium and for tighter fiscal control in the future. It's not about the workers or a reflection of their work, he said.

"This is not just two years, but for the long haul," Huebsch said.

Others claim that the fiscal argument merely masks Republicans distaste for unions and their formidable campaign contributions on behalf of Democrats.

Former state legislator and longtime politician John Medinger of La Crosse accused Walker and Huebsch of acting out of an "arrogance caused by too great pride."

"In this transition they've lost their focus on jobs and are heavy on ideology," Medinger said. "They don't like unions. And if you destroy the unions, you are really destroying the Democratic Party. I think they've overreached."

The ‘Department of All'

The Department of Administration building at 101 E. Wilson St. opened in 1992 under the direction of former Secretary James Klauser, who held the post from 1986 to 1996 under Gov. Tommy Thompson. The secretary's office on the top corner of the 10-floor building, which includes a five-level underground parking ramp, overlooks Lake Monona and Monona Terrace.

The office has the look of someone still moving in. One bookcase is half-empty, containing only seven old Blue Books and some brown lunch bags, perhaps a tribute to the campaign slogan that Walker rode to victory during last year's gubernatorial race. A photo of Ronald Reagan hangs on a wall near Huebsch's desk.

Among the personal touches are photos of Huebsch's two sons above a bookcase. Below are two nonpersonal binders, one a copy of the Executive Budget for 2011-2013 and the other a copy of the full budget.

Huebsch is very familiar with the documents. He helped write them.

The Department of Administration was created in 1959 to consolidate several other independent departments. While the agency offers direct services to Wisconsin residents in the areas of housing and energy efficiency, its primary purpose is providing support services to other state agencies and to maintain the Capitol building and other state facilities.

The department advises the governor on fiscal issues; develops the biennial state budget and has sweeping powers and influence on administrative issues regarding all state agencies.

Huebsch said some say that DOA stands for the department of all, since it has oversight of the budget and impacts all other departments.

The DOA secretary is in a clear position of power and has the ear of the governor, said Medinger, who worked with several during his tenure in Madison.

"You have to have a DOA secretary that you know and trust," Medinger said. "Walker and Huebsch are two peas in a pod. They are brothers, in everything but blood."

University of Wisconsin-La Crosse political science professor Joe Heim said: "It's widely acknowledged that the job is the second-most powerful job in the state of Wisconsin. It touches virtually all agencies of government."

One person who knows that well is Klauser. He said he offered advice to Huebsch on time management and how to conduct meetings, and he encouraged Huebsch to spend time meeting his staff.

"The secretary has to know what's going on," Klauser said.

As the former Speaker of the Assembly, Huebsch is no stranger to leadership. But the move from the legislative to the executive branch has put him on a learning curve. The biggest difference, he said, is the Legislature sets policy while the executive branch implements policy.

The executive role comes with a lot of responsibility, said Kenneth Lindner, a former UW-L chancellor who was DOA secretary under Gov. Lee Dreyfus from 1979 to 1983.

"I really believe for a governor to be successful you have to have a very strong secretary of administration so that he can exercise some discipline among the other departments," Lindner said.

Walker has known Huebsch since the days they worked together in the Legislature. He said Huebsch plays a key role in building a strong relationship with the body.

"He is well-respected and has the qualities and the ability to get along with folks," Walker said.

While Huebsch is the point man on the budget, he also plays a key adviser role. Huebsch met with Walker daily during the height of the budget repair bill protests.

Along with their values and political viewpoints, both also are both fathers to high school-aged sons. "We can commiserate at times," the governor said.

Walker and Huebsch also share a passion for motorcycles. Walker's only quibble: Huebsch doesn't ride a Harley-Davidson. It's a 1983 Honda Gold Wing, a gift from Huebsch's father.

‘Better than those drums'

Huebsch usually is up by 6 a.m., preparing for his day in the office, which begins with appointments by 8:30 or 9. In between meetings he signs a steady stream of documents prepared by his staff.

He meets with the governor every Monday and Wednesday and other times as needed. Huebsch gathers with Walker's chief of staff Keith Gilkes and his executive team prior to every cabinet meeting on Monday. Wednesday morning he has a standing meeting with the legislative leadership.

Huebsch rarely stayed overnight in Madison during his 16 years as a state representative. He preferred commuting the two hours to his West Salem home to give him as much family time as possible. He still tries to come home every Tuesday and Thursday, admitting that the two-hour drive is sometimes welcome quiet time.

But Huebsch has acquiesced to renting an apartment in Madison, no doubt helped by the fact that his annual salary of $125,500 is substantially more than the $49,943 he made has a state legislator.

One recent day Huebsch began his meetings with a delegation of law enforcement officials from Milwaukee County, including Sheriff David Clarke. Huebsch sat at the end of the large conference table, taking notes. He asked a few questions, directing the officials to find either legislative or administrative relief. An avid user of technology, Huebsch discretely checked his e-mail on his smart phone a couple of times.

Huebsch then made the quick two-block walk to the Capitol for a 10:30 meeting.

The Capitol was fairly quiet, a sharp contrast to the days in February and March when it hosted rallies against the budget adjustment bill. A small group of labor supporters from Illinois was gathered in the rotunda. Strains of "We Shall Overcome" echo off the granite walls.

"That sounds much better than those drums," Huebsch remarked, referring to the pounding noise that dominated the Capitol when thousands of protesters camped out for days.

Huebsch has oversight over the Capitol building and the grounds. He admits that he didn't understand the significance of that responsibility until protesters "took the building over," he said.

The building is still under lockdown, with only two entrances open to the public, each manned by police and metal detectors. The Capitol's security plan is under review, Huebsch said, and he is waiting for its final report before deciding if the building will go back to its pre-protest access.

Huebsch also was criticized when he revealed in a court hearing that the initial clean-up and repair cost to the Capitol and the grounds was $7.5 million. He later backed away from that estimate, saying it was a preliminary figure. A final cost is not yet available.

On the streets

Huebsch may not have the name and face recognition of the governor, but he is widely known in Madison. He stops and shakes hands with several people, including Dr. Erik A. Gundersen of La Crosse.

But not all his contacts are cordial. While waiting to cross the street, Huebsch is confronted by a woman who says she wants to say one thing to insult him.

The woman asked Huebsch how he can look at himself in the mirror every morning.

"That's one," Huebsch says.

"You're an embarrassment to Wisconsin," she adds.

"There's two," Huebsch says.

Behind the budget bill

Huebsch, who campaigned for Walker, was easily re-elected to a ninth Assembly term in November.

Two days after the election, he and Walker met with the Legislative Fiscal Bureau and continued to meet two or three times a week until Huebsch was named DOA secretary in late December.

From the beginning, the challenge was steep: How can you balance a budget that starts more than $3 billion in the hole - without raising taxes?

An unexpected gift of sorts in December opened the door when a lame duck legislative session failed to approve the state's labor contracts that had been negotiated under Gov. Jim Doyle.

Walker had asked Doyle's staff to stop working on the agreements prior to the vote, saying he wanted state workers to make deeper concessions. Walker campaigned with the suggestion that 435,000 public employees in the state should contribute more toward their benefits.

Suggesting that public employees pay more for benefits is not a new concept. In 2003, state union contracts stalled when the Republican-controlled Legislature asked for employees to pay more as the state faced a $2.6 billion budget deficit.

The contracts were approved only after Doyle agreed to require nonunion employees to pay for more of their health insurance and said he would negotiate similar changes with unions in the future. But those changes were incremental.

Huebsch said one of the reasons that Walker did not sit down with the unions and ask for concessions before he unveiled the budget adjustment bill was that he could have been accused of bargaining in poor faith.

The state had to terminate the union contracts if it wanted to cut spending, Huebsch said. When the private sector has taken its lumps during the economic downturn it's only fair that the state does the same, he reasoned.

The result was the budget adjustment bill, which asked for state employees to pay for at least 12.6 percent of their health insurance and all public employees to pay half of their pension, amounting to 5.7 percent of their salaries in 2011. It also stated that unions must be recertified every year and only wages could be subject to collective bargaining.

The proposal spurred massive labor rallies in Madison and throughout the state.

While some lawmakers - including Sen. Dan Kapanke of La Crosse - were the target of threats and protests, Huebsch said his family and his residence in West Salem have been spared. He even took his oldest son Ryan, 15, to Madison the third weekend in February when the largest protests were unfolding.

"I donned sunglasses and a baseball cap and walked around the Capitol with Ryan and his friend," Huebsch said. "They wanted to see the protests."

Union defenders have accused the state of balancing the budget on the backs of state employees they say didn't cause the budget deficit.

The concessions will hardly balance the budget, Huebsch said. The savings for the two-year budget is estimated to be about $300 million.

Huebsch said he anticipated the protests and the rallies. He even prepared contingency plans for labor walk-outs. But he did not anticipate that 14 Democratic senators would flee the state to delay a vote. He called the tactic abhorrent, saying it was an insult to Wisconsin's more than 160 years of legislative history.

"There's lot of things to do to keep democracy in place," Huebsch said. "Leaving is not one of them."

La Crosse's Medinger defended the senators: "When the train is coming down the tracks toward you at 90 miles per hour, which is what was happening to the Senate Democrats, it's pretty smart to step off the tracks to fight another day."

Inside the DOA

Among the meetings Huebsch had this day was a management meeting at the governor's office, strategic planning meeting at the Commerce Department and a meeting with DOA division heads.

Huebsch also met with David Schmiedicke, deputy budget director, to discuss where to find $28 million to balance the remainder of the 2009-2011 budget. He had several meetings to confer with legal staff over a writ to be filed that day with the Wisconsin Supreme Court over the budget adjustment bill.

"This was a typical day, because it's different every day," Huebsch said. "The issues I have are eclectic."

The 10th floor becomes quiet after 5 p.m. Huebsch grabs some files and checks messages before he joins the evening commuter traffic and makes the Thursday drive home to West Salem.

Huebsch admits that it was difficult to keep up in the days and weeks that followed Feb. 11 when the bill was announced.

"I've made mistakes in the transition in learning how to be an executive," he said. "But I feel like I'm starting to get my feet underneath me.

While nearly all of the public focus has been on the budget repair bill and the proposed budget, Huebsch said the state is looking long term. He is reviewing strategic plans that were developed during a cabinet retreat and hopes to have policies and goals finalized soon.

There haven't been many surprises, he said, with the exception of how much immediate impact he has as one of state's top decision makers. In the Assembly, he needed the approval of 50 other people.

"Now I just need the approval of one. The governor."

Copyright 2015 La Crosse Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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